A doomed journey, trapped sailors and death in the ice: Mystic exhibit tells the tale of the ill-fated ships

Mystic Seaport, a museum about seafaring, is usually filled with triumphant and adventurous stories of sailors, ships and wanderlust. But the Stonington museum has taken a dark turn, focusing in-depth on a tragic mystery involving the 1845 Franklin Expedition, whose two ships got stuck in the Canadian ice and whose sailors were never seen again.

“Death in the Ice” tells the tale of the ill-fated HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The exhibit points out a treacherous reality that was faced by all seagoing missions seeking a shipping route through the Arctic Ocean: Water will freeze in winter, but there’s no guarantee it will unfreeze in summer. And if it doesn’t, and food runs out, and subzero temperatures plummet even further, the crew is doomed.

The show includes artifacts from the Erebus, which was finally found in 2014. (The Terror was found in 2016.) The exhibit incorporates Inuit lore about what happened. This information at first was dismissed by Europeans as unreliable, but later Inuits reports were determined to be accurate.

The exhibit “ties together the European perspective, the Inuit perspective and modern forensics and diving technologies to put together a full picture,” says Elysa Engelman, the museum’s director of exhibits.

“The Inuits had an oral tradition, no writing, but they had place names that reflected where incidents happened. When [search parties] finally found the ships, they were where Inuits said they would be.”

The exhibit features overviews of British naval history of the time, when dangerous journeys were often the only jobs available to sailors. It shines a light on shipboard living, what the men brought with them – games, books, a dog, instruments, microscopes – to fight the tedium of years-long journeys.

“There were six months of darkness,” Engelman says. “They knew the dangers. They had to keep the men busy and entertained.”

The Franklin Expedition was part of a centuries-long quest to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean. Attempts to find it began in the late 15th century. In 1906, Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally made it from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canadian waterways.

The doomed journey

Franklin’s ships set sail from England on May 19, 1845. The departure was big news all over the country.

“They were like astronauts. They were famous,” Engelman says. “So many expeditions had left, with plenty of supplies, and had charted the way and survived. They felt they could, too.”

In late July, the Terror and Erebus were spotted in Baffin Bay — and were never again seen by Europeans. In the winter of 1845-46, three sailors died and were buried on Beechey Island. Their graves were found with engraved headstones by a search party a few years later. The most nightmare-inducing element in the show — parents beware — is three coffins holding life-sized photographs of the corpses of the three sailors buried on Beechey Island. The bodies, buried 172 years ago, are remarkably well-preserved, presumably due to the cold climate. The bodies were reburied on the island.

According to written documents found by search parties, the ships had gotten stuck in the ice northwest of King William Island by September in 1846.

The men knew the ice would trap them, but they did not know they would be stuck that long. In a July 1845 letter home, Lt. John Irving wrote: “About the last week of September, we shall fix our ships somewhere for the winter. We shall be frozen up for 10 months, several of which will be in total darkness.”

On May 28, 1847, Franklin wrote in a note that “all is well.”

But a few weeks later, he was dead, according to the documents. In spring 1848, when the ships had been stuck for a year and a half, they were abandoned. Engelman says when the men took to the land, there was no Inuit settlement nearby, which could have helped them survive.

“There were usually hunting parties, but no settlement,” Engelman says. “That stretch of weather was very difficult for them, too. When it’s that cold, seals can’t break through the ice to breathe, so you can’t hunt them, and there’s no food for the caribou to eat, so you can’t hunt them either.”

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Whatever happened, the men left evidence, which Inuits collected. Many items in the exhibit are tools made from Inuit materials – bone and wood – combined with British materials, such as manufactured metals. A toy boat carved from wood by an Inuit depicts a European ship rather than the Inuit style of watercraft.

Mysteries remain

Many mysteries remain regarding the ships’ fates.

“What happened to discipline, with so many men dying, including officers? One-fifth of them were dead before they left the ship. Who was making the decisions? What happens to morale? The deck was stacked against them in so many ways,” Engelman says.

There was speculation that the men resorted to cannibalism. The horrified British public, including Franklin’s widow and author Charles Dickens, refused to believe it. The explorer who made that suggestion, John Rae, was known for his sympathetic treatment of Inuits and belief in their testimonies, but in England, his reputation was destroyed for even suggesting cannibalism.

The exhibit — organized by Canadian Museum of History and Royal Museums in Greenwich, England, in partnership with Parks Canada, the government of Nunavut and Inuit Heritage Trust — was already planned before the ships were found, says Engelman. Divers have recovered items from the Erebus, but diving into the Terror hasn’t begun, because artifact retrieval has a narrow time window due to frigid temperatures in Nunavut.

“If they do the exhibit again in 10 years, what will they know?” she say. “What other answers will they have? What other questions will they have based on what they find?”

DEATH IN THE ICE: THE MYSTERY OF THE FRANKLIN EXPEDITION is at Mystic Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Road in Mystic, until April 28. mysticseaport.org.

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